I’ve heard a lot about massive open online courses (MOOCs) over the last couple of years, but hadn’t quite got around to trying one until Eva mentioned on Facebook recently that she’d signed up for a communication science course, and would anyone else like to play? Having joined both my department’s new communications team and the communications working group of the International Human Epigenomics Consortium (IHEC) during the last year, Eva’s invitation seemed like the perfect opportunity to find out whether my love of learning new things translates to this new online medium.
The Introduction to Communication Science course is offered by the University of Amsterdam, on the Coursera site. After I signed up I sent the link to the other members of my department’s communications team; my boss and one other member promptly joined, and my boss also found a course called Content Strategy for Professionals: Engaging Audiences for Your Organization from Northwestern University that looked relevant to our work revamping our rather outdated website. I therefore found myself signed up for two courses at once, which turned out to be quite a lot of work (my boss dropped Communication Science after a couple of weeks – he has three young kids at home and found it was just too much).
The two courses turned out to be very different, but complemented each other well.
The lectures for Content Strategy were all videos of one, two, or occasionally three professors sitting in an office talking to the camera; some of them seemed a little stilted and awkward, but the content was interesting and, of the two courses, the more relevant to my professional interests. I thought the best part was the IBM case study at the end, which included interviews about what Watson is up to these days (some of which is related to one of the projects I manage). The videos were all posted at the very beginning of the course, which I really liked because it allowed me to push ahead in weeks when I had more time (Mr E Man was working weekends for the first couple of weeks of the two courses, and I pretty much finished all the Content Strategy videos on those days).
I wasn’t very enthusiastic about the class assignment, though. Ironically enough, I read the description immediately after watching the lecture that stressed how important it is that your content is something the audience truly cares abut, only to find that the assignment was to create a piece of content and an overall strategy for an entity in which I had little to no interest – a men’s clothing company. It would have been better, I think, to have a choice of assignments – maybe one company for students from the private sector, and one non-profit for the rest of us. But, as promised in the assignment description, I was able to pull some more general lessons from the exercise. The course was peer-reviewed, so after posting my own assignment I was given access to other students’ pieces to assess. The course was pass/fail, so I didn’t give a grade other than “yes, they submitted something that matched the requirements”, but I gave some detailed feedback as well. It was interesting seeing what other fellow students around the world (USA, India x 2, Zimbabwe) came up with!
Communication Science turned out to be the more academic, less applied of the two courses – but I found the content more interesting (although less relevant to work). The format was a mix of the professor talking to the camera and some rather charming animations describing the main points, which I found more interesting and engaging than the Content Strategy format. The pace was very fast – being an old-school person who likes to take notes on paper, even when there’s a transcript available, I had to pause the video a few times so I could get everything down – but I feel like I learned a lot, especially about the history of the waxing and waning influences of different media throughout history. There were 16-question multiple choice homework questions at the end of each week’s videos, and a 100-question multiple choice exam at the end. I found the exam quite easy, no doubt because of all that diligent note taking (and I thought I was just finally finding a way to justify some of the lovely fancy notebooks that I buy compulsively but rarely actually write in!). The one thing I didn’t like about this course was that the videos were released each week, rather than all at the beginning, making it a little harder to fit in around other commitments – for example, I got behind due to a weekend away in February, and had a hard time catching up.
I really liked having people to talk to about both courses, both at work and on Twitter with Eva and Lou Woodley. There were also Coursera forums and LinkedIn / Facebook groups to join, but I quickly unsubscribed from the latter due to an overwhelming amount of email from them, and didn’t spend much time on the former. I’ve signed up for a couple more courses, just for fun – Maps and the Geospatial Revolution in April, and Introduction to Logic in September – so it’ll be interesting to see how the experience differs when I’m doing the course solo and without any potential professional benefits. Overall, though, I have confirmed that my love of learning does translate to the world of MOOCs, and I think I’ve found a new favourite hobby for those cold, dark, damp BC winters!